Obama suggests he’s open to immigration deal without path to citizenship

President Obama said in an interview that aired Friday morning that he's open to a middle-ground approach with Republicans on immigration reform that might not include a new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders on Thursday released a set of "principles" that included a path to legal status -- but not citizenship -- for the more than 10 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Immigration reform advocates expressed optimism about the move, and Obama's words Friday seem to further improve chances for a deal.

"If the speaker proposes something that says, right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.

Obama echoed immigrant advocacy groups that gave the GOP's so-called "principles" a vote of confidence. These groups in recent days have expressed more openness to something that stops shy of a path to citizenship.

"I am encouraged by what Speaker Boehner has said," Obama said. "Obviously, I was encouraged by the bipartisan bill that passed out of the Senate.  I genuinely believe that Speaker Boehner and a number of House Republicans, folks like Paul Ryan, really do want to get a serious immigration reform bill done."

The Senate last year passed a comprehensive bipartisan bill that included a path to citizenship, but the House has not voted on it and has instead opted for a more piecemeal approach, hoping to pass several bills instead. Obama has repeatedly expressed an openness to that approach.

There remain major questions about the GOP's approach -- specifically, whether actual legislation will meet the demands of immigration reform advocates, and whether conservatives will embrace the legalization of those who entered the United States illegally.

Obama sought to clarify his remarks later in the day Friday, saying during a Google Hangout from the White House that he continues to believe that immigration reform shouldn't create "two categories" of people in the United States -- a suggestion that mere legal status doesn't meet his goals.

“I believe in any scenario we should also make sure that, at the end of the day, people are able to become citizens," Obama said. "We don’t want a situation in which we’ve got two categories of people in this country – folks who are full-fledged citizens and folks who are not.”

Obama added: “There are still some differences. Obviously, the the devil is in the details, but it is my firm belief that we can get immigration reform done this year.”

In the CNN interview, Obama also said he believes it is safe for Americans to travel to Sochi, Russia, next week for the Winter Olympics.

"I'd tell [my friends] that I believe that Sochi is safe and that there are always some risks in these large international gatherings," Obama said. "I'm always going to feel even better ... inside the United States, because then we have full control over what happens."

Obama also responded to GOP criticism of his move to use more executive orders. Obama discussed the decision in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Asked about Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Tex.) allegations of an "imperial" presidency, Obama dismissed such comments.

"Well, I don't think that's very serious," Obama said. "I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that every president engages in executive actions. In fact, we've been very disciplined and sparing in terms of the executive actions that we have taken.  We make sure that we're doing it within the authority that we have under statute. But I am not going to make an apology for saying that if I can help middle class families and folks who are working hard to try to get in the middle class do a little bit better, then I'm going to do it."

Updated at 2:28 p.m.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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